Here I am, on the left coast, in the weirdest city in the US. Ostensibly, I am here in my role as supportive wife to my husband while he attends a conference. In reality, I am here to do research for my third book — a book that will come to fruition toward the end of 2014 (provided I survive the extensive reworking of my second book).
This particular visit is very different from the two previous forays I’ve made to San Francisco. This time, I am forcing myself to put my impressions and observations down on paper. By writing down the events that go on around me, I’m compelled to look, listen, smell, and feel things with greater intent. I find that I pay closer attention to each and every little gesture, conversation, glance; every sound that assaults my ears, loud or soft; every scent that drifts by my quivering nostrils. As I’m bombarded with sensations, I have to sort them out, categorize them, and give them meaning.
It’s as if I’m observing myself observing the world around me. An out-of-body experience without leaving my body. It’s also setting the impressions in my brain like handprints in wet concrete.
It might seem an obvious thing for a writer to visit a place, experience stuff and things, and write it all down. My problem, before I had this amazing idea to record my experiences, was I relied too much on my recall abilities. Too often, I found that shortly after leaving a city or town, the feelings and thoughts had faded and were useless. I have the memory of a steel sieve, apparently. So, this time, I resolved to get something useful from the pain-in-the-ass it is to travel by airplane in this day and age of Heightened Airport Security.
Today, I offer my observations on the needy people of San Francisco:
On every corner, and I do mean every corner, there is one panhandler with a large take-away drink cup. The cup rattles with a few coins as the beggar shakes it at passers-by, often accompanying the rattle with a hopeful “Good Morning!” or “God Bless!”. Sometimes the person is dressed quite nicely, sometimes he or she is in rags. I try not to make snap judgments, but the well-dressed panhandlers often give me pause. I have to avoid eye contact, though, or these people, sensing a sympathetic soul, will glom onto me and follow me for blocks, demanding money, cigarettes, or… my name (the most difficult thing for me to offer). So, I keep walking, head down, ashamed of myself, but unwilling to make the effort that would alleviate that shame.
San Francisco seems to have more than its share of shelterless folk. There’s an undercurrent of muted despair and hopelessness here that I haven’t felt in any other large city I’ve visited. The homeless are everywhere here. They huddle against concrete retaining walls in the entrance ways to the subway. They lay rolled in ragged camping bags and blankets on the slopes of the park lawns. They slouch in doorways at all hours of the day and night. I can almost see the aimless souls drifting above each unconscious body. Sleep is the only escape, it seems, from this day-to-day existence of nothingness.
This morning, I stood on the sidewalk outside the hotel at which we’re staying; my back to the street, smoking a cigarette, and watching the endless stream of people stroll by. Over the constant roar of traffic, punctuated by horns blaring and tires screeching, I can hear the rhythmic cry of a man whose synapses seem to be misfiring. His rhythmic cry of “Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!” echoes off the building walls, with a beat I imagine timed to the pulse of his heart. I stop hearing the traffic noise, the passing conversations of the crowds, and listen only to his mournful expression of pain. What happened in his life that he cries his anguish to an unfeeling, uncaring city? I’m tempted to go find him and ask; but once again, I am unwilling to take that risk.
Cowardly? Yes, of course I am. It’s far easier to sit here and type out my thoughts and fears than to go confront them in the person of some mentally challenged vagrant.
I stubbed out my cigarette and retreated to the safety of my hotel room.